With a tired grimace, she tramped out of the thicket she’d used to shield herself from the men so that she could attend to her personal needs. Raking her fingers through her hopelessly tangled hair, she trudged over to the fire and sent a murderous glance at Royce, who still looked rested and alert as he knelt on one knee, tossing logs onto the fire he’d built. "I must say," she told his broad back, "if this is the life you’ve led all these years past, it leaves much to be desired." Jenny expected no answer, nor did she receive one, and she began to understand why Aunt Elinor, who’d been deprived of human companionship for twenty years, had missed it so much that now she eagerly chattered away at anyone she could find to listen to her—willingly or no. After an entire night and day of Royce’s silence, she was desperate to vent her ire on him.
Too exhausted to stand, Jenny sank down onto a pile of leaves a few paces from the fire, reveling in the opportunity to sit upon something soft, something that didn’t lurch and bump and jar her teeth, even though it was damp. Drawing her legs up to her chest, she wrapped her arms around them. "On the other hand," she said, continuing her one-way conversation with his back, "perhaps you find much pleasure in galloping through the woods, ducking tree limbs, and fleeing for your life. And, when that becomes tedious, you can always divert yourself with a siege or a bloody battle, or an abduction of helpless, innocent people. ‘Tis truly a perfect existence for a man like you!"
Over his shoulder, Royce glanced at her and saw her sitting with her chin perched upon her knees, her delicate brows raised in challenge, and could not believe her daring. After everything he’d put her through in the past twenty-four hours, Jennifer Merrick—no, he corrected himself, Jennifer Westmoreland—could still calmly sit on a pile of leaves and mock him.
Jenny would have said more, but just then poor Friar Gregory staggered out of the woods, saw her, and stumbled over to sink gingerly onto the leaves beside her. Once sitting, he shifted experimentally from one hip to the other, wincing. "I—" he began, and winced again—"have not ridden much," he admitted ruefully.
It dawned on Jenny that his entire body must be racked with aches and pains, and she managed to smile at him in helpless sympathy. Next it occurred to her that the poor friar was a prisoner of a man with a reputation for unspeakable brutality, and she sought to allay his inevitable fears as best she could, given her animosity for the man who’d captured them both. "I do not think he will murder you or torture you," she began, and the friar looked at her askance.
"I have already been tortured to the full limits, by that horse," he stated dryly, then he sobered. "However, I shouldn’t think I’ll be killed. ‘Twould be foolhardy, and I don’t think your husband is a fool. Reckless, yes. Foolish, no."
"Then you aren’t concerned for your life?" Jenny asked, studying the friar with new respect as she recalled her own terror at her first sight of the Black Wolf.
Friar Gregory shook his head. "From the three words that blond giant over there allotted me, I gather that I’m to be taken with you to bear witness to the inevitable inquiry that is bound to take place on the matter of whether you are well and truly married. You see," he admitted ruefully, "As I explained to you at the priory, I was merely a visitor there; the prior himself and all the friars having gone into a nearby village to minister to the poor in spirit. Had I left on the morn, as I meant to do, there would have been no one to attest to the vows you spoke."
A brief flair of blazing anger pierced Jenny’s weary mind. "If he"—she glanced furiously at her husband, who was near the fire, his knee bent as he tossed more logs onto the blaze—"wanted witnesses to the marriage, he had only to leave me in peace and wait until today when Friar Benedict would have married us."
"Yes, I know, and it seems odd he didn’t do that. ‘Tis known from England to Scotland that he was reluctant, no, violently opposed, to the idea of wedding you."
Shame made Jenny look away, feigning interest in the wet leaves beside her as she traced her finger on their veined surface. Beside her, Friar Gregory said gently, "I speak plainly to you, because I sensed from our first meeting at the priory that you are not fainthearted and would prefer to know the truth."
Jenny swallowed the lump of humiliation in her throat and nodded, cringing inside at the realization that everyone of importance in two countries evidently knew she was an unwanted bride. Moreover an unvirginal one. She felt unclean and humiliated beyond words—humbled and brought to her knees before the populace of two entire countries. Angrily she said, "I don’t think his actions of the past two days will go unpunished. He snatched me from my bed and hauled me out a tower window and down a rope. Now he’s snatched you! I think the MacPherson and all the other clans may well break the truce and attack him!" she said with morbid satisfaction.
"Oh, I doubt there’ll be much in the way of official retaliation; ’tis said Henry commanded him to wed you posthaste. Lord Westmoreland—er—his grace, has certainly complied with that, although there’s bound to be a bit of an outcry from James to Henry over the way he did it. However, at least in theory, the duke obeyed Henry to the letter, so perhaps Henry will be merely amused by all this."
Jenny looked at him in humiliated fury. "Amused!"
"Possibly," Friar Gregory said. "For, like the Wolf, Henry has technically fulfilled the agreement he made with James to the very letter. His vassal, the duke, has wed you, and wed you with all haste. And in the process, he evidently breached your castle, which was doubtlessly heavily guarded, and snatched you right from your family’s midst. Yes," he continued more to himself than to her, as if impartially considering a question of dogmatic theory, "I can see that the English may find all this highly entertaining."
Bile surged in Jenny’s throat, almost choking her as she recalled all that had happened last night in the hall, and realized the priest was right. The hated English had been wagering amongst themselves, actually wagering in the hall at Merrick, that her husband would soon bring her to her knees, while her kinsmen could do naught but look at her—look at her with their proud, set faces, as they bore her shame as their own. But they were hoping, depending upon her, to redeem herself and all of them by never yielding.
"Although," Friar Gregory said more to himself than to her, "I cannot ken why he would have put himself to such risk and trouble."
"He raves about some plot," Jenny said in a suffocated whisper. "How do you know so much about us—about everything that’s been happening?"